Henry knew where to go. Less than a month had passed since he'd been there before. It was a large room. It looked a bit like an airport terminal but no one was in a hurry and nobody was pulling luggage on wheels, but they had that same exhausted look of the air-traveler. Terminal was not a word anyone would want to hear now. Behind a long counter sat volunteers. He knew they were volunteers because a badge said so. That meant they were doing this for no pay, no stipend. Henry wanted to feel good about such generosity but his mind slid down to economics and politics -- if they had to pay these people this place probably wouldn't function. They'd have to cut something out. Cutting things out is what the surgeon is a past-master of. Cutting is their forte. What would they cut if they had to pay these people to hand him a beeper? Maybe they'd have to send back the marble floors or that huge waterfall at the entrance. Something would have to give. Some price would have to be paid. Propitiation of the gods always has its cost.
About a third of the room had tables and chairs. The rest was taken up with uncomfortable couches. They didn't want anyone to lie down. This wasn't a flop house. Can you imagine the bums that would take over if the lights were dimmed and if there were someplace to recline? There's no rest for the wicked.
Hanging from the ceilings were large flat screen TVs. Henry tried to get as far from these as he could. He sat down with his backpack. He had Emily's clothes and her purse in there, along with the iPad, a Gatorade and a book for himself. There was nothing for it but to wait it out. Too bad he couldn't whistle some, but he figured that would get as many stares as breaking into song.
A woman nearby had an mp3 player on her phone and was bopping along to the sound which seemed not to be coming only from the earbuds. A man was with her and he told he could hear the music.
"That's OK," she said.
He shook his head. "No, I can hear it."
"I'm alright," she said. She frowned like she was about to become very angry.
The man -- was he her husband or brother? -- Henry couldn't deduce that much -- walked over to her and shoved the cord into the phone better and the sound cut out so only she could hear it.
"There." He said.
Problem solved, Henry thought.
There was a large monitor on the back wall. This had a list of patient names abbreviated to just the initials along with dates of birth. Henry found Emily's status. There were so many names that the list had to roll. The screen was more than five feet high. Henry did not tot up the number of surgeries. He just saw that next to Emily's alphanumeric it said, PROCEDURE STARTING.
This is the waiting. We know about this. This is the sitting. We have the sitzfleisch. You get out the iPad, you post to FB that she has gone into the OR. Then you get out your copy of Cancer Ward and you read. You thank God you aren't in the Soviet Union in the 1950's. You more or less ignore the people around you, the ones who are on the verge of crying, the ones who are in the middle of crying. You tell yourself they are weakling bastards trying to get into Denver at Thanksgiving and the idea of a canceled flight is just too damn much for them. You pay no attention to the idiot teen mother telling her baby of six months to stop it, as if the kid can understand English. Would you try to reason with your cat, lady? Some people shouldn't be allowed to have children.
Wondering the exact age of various people is acceptable. Those volunteers at the desk for instance. Those women had to older than they looked. The one woman clearly colored her hair. She had to be near sixty. Her figure didn't look it. There was very little loose flesh at her throat, but who under the age of fifty would take such a position? Those people were working. Maybe not as hard as kids at McDonald's -- Henry had done that job, flipping burgers -- but these people were working.
The woman a little behind where he sat now was dressed in the sort of clothes girls the age of Henry's older son wore. Her hair fell down over her eyes so he couldn't see the corners of her eyes. She could have been fifteen, she could have been thirty-five. Directly across from him a woman was wearing those shoes that are supposed to give you a nice butt. Literally. That was what the ads said. Wear these shoes and tone your butt muscles. Isn't that like telling everyone you think your ass is saggy? Or is it fishing for a compliment. Hey, your ass looks fine to me. Hubba-hubba.
A number of people seemed to have the latest smartphones. They were gazing at them as if they held some great mystery. Then they tapped at them with their thumbs. That could have been a call, a text, or long division.
The one with the ass-improving shoes was reading her phone to a younger woman beside her. Henry hadn't known they were together. "I can't believe her. I really need to delete her from my friends on facebook. Listen to what she posts: "Don't worry, Baby, we are in this together. We are doing this together. When you go in Monday it will be like I'm going in with you. And when you get out we will raise this baby together.' She posted that on his wall."
"What did he say?"
"Nothing. She's got like fifteen posts and he never answers her."
"He doesn't use Facebook?"
"No. He does. He's commented on other people's stuff. Mutual friends of mine. He was just on fifteen minutes ago, it says here. He doesn't want anything to do with her."
"So why doesn't he block her or whatever?"
The other woman just made a face like she was as mystified as the next person.
"I can't believe she's throwing herself at him like that."
"It's so pathetic that she strikes out with a guy going to jail."
They both laughed at that but with what seemed like embarrassment.
"Do we have some kind of family or what?"
Then it was back to sitzfleisch and Solzhenitsyn. He read slowly, somnambulating through the Soviet hospital. He could almost feel the dust on the wooden floor, see the grime on the windows. Had the narrator said where they were? It was some backwater. Lansing, Michigan would be a Mecca by comparison. Maybe. You wouldn't want to get cancer anywhere in the 1950's. Elvis couldn't heal you. Ike neither. Rock and roll and rockets and then the Pill.
Sex and high tech poison. DDT. PCB. Saccharine. Mix it all together and whaddya got?
I'm all shook up.
Then all we have to do is blast that with gamma rays.
People leave the waiting room and new ones come in. This is the belly of the beast. It's a digestive system through which you move. The operation takes place upstairs and then you come down stairs to wait. You're beeper goes off and it tells you SEE DESK. That's when they tell you that your loved one is out of surgery. You have to wait some more. The surgeon will come to talk to you. Henry checks the display on the wall. It has gone from ENDING PROCEDURE to IN RECOVERY. That almost sounds optimistic.
He hasn't given much thought to how things went in pre-op. There was a really long wait because the surgeon is a vascular specialist. They had to seek one of those out because the idiot surgeon in their small town couldn't put a portacath in for Emily. Vascular surgeons are great but busy guys. Emily's procedure to change her portacath -- the damn thing didn't work -- got pushed back because someone had a coronary procedure. Damn people dying in line right in front of you. Henry was trying his best to get the staff to be gentle with his wife.
"Did you see her wrist?" he asked the nurse.
"I saw it but I didn't get a good look at it. What's going on there?"
"That's why we're here. That's why we have to get this taken care of. She had chemo just put into an IV. Well, that vein didn't much like the chemo."
"Oh, yes. It went subcu. We see a lot of that," she said.
Subcu. Subcutaneous. Leaking out of the vein and into the surrounding tissue. It might not sound like much but that chemo shit is toxic. That's how it works. It's like Dran-o on the cancer. Except you need to get it to the cancer through your liver. Not through the flesh on your wrist. This would be obvious to anyone looking at the bruise wrapping around Emily's hand and up her wrist.
"That's three weeks old. We don't know if it will ever heal."
The nurse didn't say anything.
Strangely, Henry felt little emotion. He wasn't angry at this woman hiding behind jargon. She didn't know that he was word nerd with a master's degree. She figured her medical terminology kept Henry and all the other les canaille out of the sanctus sanctorum of the biological sciences.
The sleepwalking thoughts were threading through the hospital of his mind. There can be bad medicine. He didn't want to think about that. The surgeon had been apologetic about how much Emily had been through. He had a sweet look of sympathy on his face. It was so human and touching that Henry nearly burst into tears. He promised to get the port working. He would open the same incision and swap out the main part of the port without having to tap into the artery again, so long as that was alright.
Maybe the port hadn't worked because the nurses at the infusion center had nicked the tubing. Anything was possible.
Many things are possible. Far fewer are probable. The nurses hadn't known how to use Emily's port from the get-go. Henry had looked at pictures of ports online. Many times they looked like a bubble just under the skin. This was especially true on a man with no breast tissue. It sat on top of the muscle like a bad mosquito bite. Emily's was harder to see. There was some swelling just from putting the thing in. Her body had been through a lot. This was going to be her fourth surgery in less than two months.